DOLORES – In a corner of San Juan National Forest’s Dolores Ranger District, a rumble permeates the air.
Jim Broderick swings his loader back and forth, the mechanical claw dropping up and down grasping thin logs of ponderosa pine like an arcade claw game.
It’s frigid and snow covers the sides of the rutted U.S. Forest Service road.
One or two at a time, Broderick loads the logs on the back of a trailer, their varying lengths and small widths a departure from the large and neatly uniform logs of a commercial logging truck.
Broderick, the owner and operator of Triple JR Logging, Land and Cattle Co., will later ferry the two trailers of trees to the Chinle Chapter House of the Navajo Nation as a part of the forest’s new Wood for Life program.
San Juan National Forest’s Wood for Life program connects the unwanted byproducts of forest health projects with the Chinle Chapter House for use among many community members who still rely on wood-burning stoves to heat their homes. The program is mutually beneficial; the Forest Service gets rid of small diameter wood that piles up, while the Chinle Chapter receives firewood at no cost.
It’s a recent model started in Arizona by the National Forest Foundation, the Forest Service and the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation that’s beginning to take off, and that the Forest Service hopes can also help Southwest Colorado’s tribes.
“We’re dealing with forest health issues and one of the byproducts of (forest) thinning is small-diameter or low-value wood,” said David Casey, supervisory forester with San Juan National Forest’s Dolores Ranger District.
“We recognized our juxtaposition to the Navajo reservation, who was already working with the Wood for Life program, and just started making some phone calls to folks to figure out: Could we utilize this program up here to help some folks that are vulnerable, but also help meet some of our restoration goals here on the forest?” Casey said.
The Dolores Ranger District faces challenges from wildfires and pine beetles that threaten the forest.
After more than a century without the historic fire regimes that maintained ponderosa pine ecosystems, massive wildfires can permanently damage the forest.
If a fire gets too big, ponderosa can struggle to reseed the burned area and post-fire flooding events and mudslides can scar the landscape, forcing the Forest Service to replant the forest, Casey said.
Pine beetles pose just as much of a risk, if not more, in the Dolores Ranger District.
The district has two types of pine beetles: the roundheaded pine beetle and the mountain pine beetle. Each has a different life cycle.
Mountain pine beetles typically attack trees in July or August, while roundheaded pine beetles attack trees in October and November, according to Colorado State University Extension and the Forest Service.
The overlap of the two in the Dolores Ranger District gives trees little time to recover before they are under attack again, decimating parts of the forest.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Casey said. “We know we can’t stop these bugs completely.”
To mitigate the effects of the pine beetles and wildfires, the district undertakes forest health projects that remove trees and thin the forest.
During these projects, Casey and other foresters with the district try to build resilient and resistant characteristics into the forest. They do this by actively adjusting the composition of the forest so that a mixture of old and young, large and small trees populate the land.
To achieve this effect, they must cut down both larger and smaller trees.
The Dolores Ranger District partners with logging companies and contractors to remove hundreds if not thousands of these trees during its forest health projects. Commercial logging companies take trees 9 inches in diameter and turn them into lumber projects, but those between 5 and 8.9 inches (the smallest harvested in the forest) have no outlet.
“In order to fill a log truck, it takes that many more logs with (a) small diameter,” Casey said. “It costs more to process, to get it to a mill. There’s more loading (and) unloading time, and then it doesn’t produce as much usable volume compared to a larger diameter tree.”
Small-diameter trees also limit the products companies can make.
The problem is that small-diameter trees can make up the majority of logs cut during forest health projects.
“It’s a significant portion of what we’re after out there,” Casey said. “... We’ll get into areas where predominantly what we’re removing is small-diameter.”
In the absence of industry, the Wood for Life program funnels this excess wood that may be burned or left in fields to the Chinle Chapter House of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona.
Some of Chinle’s community members have transitioned to propane or electrical heat, but many still rely on wood stoves, said Colin Tsosie, project coordinator for the Chinle Chapter House.
“A lot of our elders prefer the wood stoves, but as they get older they don’t have the means of transportation to go out in the woods and cut them down,” he said.
On the western edge of Canyon de Chelly National Monument, few forests provide a sufficient source of wood for heating homes. Some community members can drive up to an hour away on dirt roads to collect the wood they need, Tsosie said.
The Chinle Chapter House focuses its Wood for Life efforts on distributing wood to elders, and the logs that San Juan National Forest supplies at no cost make a difference.
“This program does really help us assist them in getting heat for the winter,” Tsosie said.
The Chinle Youth Program and AmeriCorps volunteers take the logs delivered by the Forest Service and cut and split the wood before it is distributed throughout the community.
As soon as a semi-load of logs arrive, they set to work, aiming to process the wood in the same day so that it can be distributed sooner, Tsosie said.
It’s a heavy lift, but both the Chinle Youth Program and the AmeriCorps volunteers are critical to the success of the program and the community members they serve.
The Wood for Life program was first established in 2020 as a partnership between the Coconino and the Kaibab national forests, the National Forest Foundation, the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation.
With the closing of the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, and the Kayenta Mine in 2019, Coconino and Kaibab saw an uptick in request for firewood access from Hopi and Navajo tribal members, said Sasha Stortz, Arizona program manager for the National Forest Foundation.
At the same time, the national forests were carrying out forest health projects and producing excess wood.
“We started looking at what it would take to move some of that low-value, small-diameter wood out to some of these partner communities to have it processed and distributed for firewood,” Stortz said. “We started with a small pilot of about 20 cords, and I feel like I’ve kind of been running after a snowball that’s just been growing and growing ever since.”
A cord of wood fills about two pickup truck beds.
When Casey heard about Wood for Life and San Juan National Forest hired an employee from Coconino National Forest who had knowledge of the program, he reached out to Stortz and Emily Olsen, Rocky Mountain region director for the National Forest Foundation, to see if they could help bring the program to the San Juan National Forest.
The Chinle Chapter House was the perfect destination. Because they had already been working with Coconino and Kaibab, they had the logistical network in place to cut, split and distribute the wood.
“It was a pretty serendipitous coming together,” Olsen said.
“The Chinle Chapter House was primed and ready to receive wood, so it just seemed like a nice opportunity to try to pilot the program in Colorado,” she said.
The National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit that supports national forests and works closely with the Forest Service, acted as a facilitator to get the first Wood for Life program up and running in Colorado.
Olsen and the National Forest Foundation first worked with Weston Backcountry, a Denver ski and snowboard company, to secure a $10,000 grant from the company to pilot the program. They then helped contract with Broderick to transport the wood and coordinated between the Chinle Chapter House and San Juan National Forest so everything was aligned.
Snow and winter delayed the project for about two months, but on Monday, Broderick delivered the first load.
“We’ve been battling weather and all kinds of stuff. This is the worst time to do it, but we really wanted to work out the logistics ahead of trying to do a bigger effort this summer,” Casey said.
Over the next month, Broderick will help deliver about six log truck loads of wood, which measures out to at least 84 cords of firewood, to the Chinle Chapter House, according to a news release.
Casey and the San Juan National Forest are seeking agency appropriated money to sustain and expand the program, while Olsen and the National Forest Foundation are looking for funding from corporations and other sources to defray some of the cost of hauling the wood.
Ideally, the bulk of wood deliveries would take place in the summer to avoid delays and prepare the Chinle Chapter House community ahead of weather, Tsosie said.
Even with wood deliveries from Coconino, Kaibab and now San Juan national forests, the Chinle Chapter House still needs more firewood to meet community demand, he said.
Across the West, other national forests have begun noticing the Wood for Life program.
As they seek alternative outlets for unmarketable wood, many are increasingly interested in recreating the program, Stortz said.
Stortz sees national potential for Wood for Life as communities throughout the U.S. undertake more concerted efforts to restore forest health.
“There’s definitely a lot of places across the nation where we have forests with too much timber and not an end market, and a lot of communities that rely on firewood,” Stortz said. “I think this is definitely one solution.”
For San Juan National Forest, Casey and Olsen hope to expand the program to help Southwest Colorado’s Indigenous communities.
“The hope from the National Forest Foundation and the Forest Service is that we can start to work with local tribes like the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and others,” Olsen said. “We’d like to be more inclusive and make sure that we’re working with tribes who are a shorter distance from the San Juan National Forest. We know that there’s a huge need. Wood supply shouldn’t be an issue.”
The Wood for Life program is a partnership between the Forest Service, tribes and the National Forest Foundation whereby forest health initiatives help sustain communities.
It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
“In this case, everyone benefits,” Olsen said.